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COVID pandemic led to crunch of health workers in 55 countries: WHO

The disruption caused by the COVID pandemic has created a crunch in the availability of healthcare workers in 55 countries, posing a serious threat to the attainment of the proposed Sustainable Development Goal target for universal health coverage (UHC) by 2030, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.

In its updated health workforce support and safeguards list 2023, the United Nations Health Agency noted that the impact of the COVID pandemic and widespread disruptions to health services has resulted in a rapid acceleration in the international recruitment of health workers.

In a statement, WHO also stated that countries that have lost health personnel due to international migration may impact their health systems negatively, impeding their progress towards UHC and health security.

According to the newly released list of the 55 countries that lost their health workers to international migrations, 37 are in the WHO African region, eight are in the Western Pacific region, six are in the Eastern Mediterranean region, three are in the South-East Asia region, and one is in the Americas.

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Among the South Asian countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal figured in the list.

Moreover, a cursory look at the list revealed that since the publication of the original list released in 2020, eight more countries have reported losing their health workers to international migrations in the current list.

These 55 countries have a UHC service coverage index below 55 and health workforce density below the global median of 49 medical doctors, nursing and midwifery personnel per 10 000 people.

The UN Health Agency said that these countries require priority support for health workforce development and health system strengthening, along with additional safeguards that limit active international recruitment.

“Health workers are the backbone of every health system, and yet 55 countries with some of the world’s most fragile health systems do not have enough, and many are losing their health workers to international migration,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said.

“WHO is working with these countries to support them to strengthen their health workforce, and we call on all countries to respect the provisions in the WHO health workforce support and safeguards list,” he added.

According to the UN Health Agency, the list can be used to inform advocacy, policy dialogue at all levels, and financing efforts in these countries to support health workforce education and employment.

Stressing that WHO is not against international healthcare workforce recruitment, WHO said that it recommends that government-to-government health worker migration agreements should be governed by informed health labour market analysis and the adoption of measures to ensure an adequate supply of health workers in the source countries while engaging the respective health ministries in the negotiation and implementation of agreements, and specify the health system benefits of the arrangement to both source and destination countries.

WHO said that it also recommends that these safeguards be extended to all low- and middle-income countries too.

Implementing the WHO Global code of practice on the international recruitment of health personnel (WHO Global Code) can ensure that the international movement of health workers is ethically managed, supports the rights and welfare of migrant health workers and maintains health service delivery objectives, the agency said.

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